They keep coming to cancel or censor more fiction and more classics of literature. Now, disturbingly, it’s Roald Dahl’s turn.
The re-editing, rewording and outright expungement of now-disfavored wording in the delightfully subversive and amusing children’s books by the late great British writer, who died in 1990 at 74, are just the latest example of efforts to suppress or censor literature.
But the “they,” this time, doesn’t refer only to government agencies, bureaucrats and woke cultists eager to shove more politically incorrect stories and thoughts down Orwell’s proverbial memory hole.
This time, ironically but unsurprisingly, “they” includes Dahl’s British publisher Puffin and the Dahl estate, eagerly colluding to publish bowdlerized versions of his books to avoid “triggering” anyone.
PEN America, an organization of about 7,500 writers supporting freedom of expression, said it was ‘alarmed’ by reports of the changes to many Dahl books, from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to The Witches and James and the Giant Peach.
‘If we start down the path of trying to correct for perceived slights instead of allowing readers to receive and react to books as written, we risk distorting the work of great authors and clouding the essential lens that literature offers on society,’ tweeted Suzanne Nossel, PEN America’s chief executive.
From Brendan O’Neill’s report in The Spectator, published in Great Britain since 1828 and now the world’s oldest magazine:
“The vandals have come for Roald Dahl. His books for children are to be cleansed of their “offensive” content. Sensitivity readers — what we used to call censors — have been employed to pore over his works and expurgate any word or passage that might hurt a kid’s feelings. If you weren’t worried about cancel culture before, surely this egregious assault on some of the best-known children’s books of the modern era, this posthumous purging of an author’s output, will change your mind.”
… “Every fashionable political belief of the 2020s is being crowbarred into Dahl’s fictional universe. So Matilda no longer reads Rudyard Kipling — that imperial old brute! — but Jane Austen.”
…”Let us be frank about what is going on here. This is a cultural purging. These arrogant alterations represent a profoundly censorious attack on one of the world’s best-loved writers. They can doll it up in the language of “sensitivity” and “inclusion” as much as they like, but to the rest of us it still smacks of a Stalinist correction of wrongspeak.”
“Puffin’s vandalizing of Dahl’s work was carried out in conjunction with an organization called Inclusive Minds, a collective of sensitivity readers who are “passionate about inclusion and accessibility in children’s literature.” I find the modern use of that word “inclusion” grimly fascinating. It so often means its opposite. When people say they are devoted to “inclusion” it usually means they’re devoted to excluding problematic people and difficult ideas. And so it is with the haughty overhaul of Dahl’s world of make-believe: under the banner of “inclusion” all sorts of words and characters and jokes are being excluded, bowdlerized, blacked-out….”
“This is the doublespeak of modern-day censorship. “Sensitivity” is the garb moral censure now wears. The sensitivity police are everywhere. The striking thing in the Dahl case is that they arrived on the scene after publication — decades after publication in this case,” O’Neill writes.
Generations of children and adults have enjoyed and embraced Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, The Witches, The Fantastic Mr. Fox and James and the Giant Peach, just a few of Dahl’s books worth reading and rereading.
Dahl, whose works have been translated into 68 languages, remains just as popular today, decades after his death, reinforced by the many popular film, television and movie versions of his books.
Although Dahl’s works haven’t generally been nominated for a Prometheus Award (all of his published works, now more than 20 years old, are eligible for consideration in the Prometheus Hall of Fame), some of his best stories incorporate powerful anti-authoritarian themes and encourage children to find their courage, assert their individuality and creativity and fight oppression.
Perhaps the best example, to me, is Matilda, Dahl’s 1988 story about an extraordinary little girl who loves to read – and who discovers special powers that help her and other schoolgirls fight the abuses of power of domineering, bullying Miss Trunchbull, her school’s evil headmistress.
By the way, Matilda the Musical, a long-running London West End hit that won the Olivier Award for best musical, is worth seeing. I first saw it as a newspaper theater critic and reviewed it very favorably at the start of its impressive (now-ended) Broadway run. But anyone who streams shows can now enjoy the musical, recently adapted into an excellent movie-musical (available on Netflix), with Emma Thompson receiving particular acclaim for her terrorizing but textured Trunchbull. (Boo! Hiss!)
Even with its darker themes, the musical is family-friendly – and happily unexpurgated!
Yet even if Dahl’s books never receive Prometheus recognition, they’re worth writing about and defending here on the Prometheus Blog and elsewhere.
Especially because Dahl himself is no longer around to stand up for his rights and artistic freedom.
That’s because in my view, the suppression of literature – whether formal government censorship or informal (and legal) suppression by private groups facing mob pressure with cowardice – constitutes a continuing threat against both liberty and literature, culture and civilization.
IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE:
* Prometheus winners: For the full list of Prometheus winners, finalists and nominees – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website, which now includes convenient links to the full set of published appreciation-reviews of past winners.
* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the evolution of the modern genre.
* Watch videos of the 2022 Prometheus ceremony with Wil McCarthy, and past Prometheus Awards ceremonies, Libertarian Futurist Society panel discussions with noted sf authors and leading libertarian writers, and other LFS programs on the Prometheus Blog’s Video page.
* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans.
Libertarian futurists believe that culture matters! We understand that the arts and literature can be vital, and in some ways even more powerful than politics in the long run, by sparking innovation, better ideas, positive social change, and mutual respect for each other’s rights and differences.